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5 Minute Guide: Marrakech: Souk It Up

The Ancient Medina.The Ancient Medina. Image: Corbis

Marrakech delivers an intoxicating blend of souks, spices and hidden palaces with stylish galleries and chic cafes, says Lucy Grewcock

1. About: Marrakech has been a meeting place for travelers, traders and tribesmen for almost 1,000 years. It’s dubbed the ‘Red City’, cinnamon-hued walls wrapping around a metropolis of ruined palaces and remarkable mosques. In the ancient Medina (old town), a chaos of covered markets sprawls north-east from Djemaa el-Fna, one of Africa’s busiest squares. Meanwhile, the stylish shops and designer gardens of the French-built new town, Gueliz, satisfy anyone craving contemporary culture.

2. Hotel: For authentic stays, it has to be a riad — a converted Marrakech townhouse. A few footsteps from Djemaa el-Fna, Riad Badi is one of the best. Behind this boutique hotel’s studded door is a cool courtyard where hosts await with mint tea and stacks of local insight. After a morning exploring the city, escape to the rooftop pool or one of seven ambient and uniquely furnished guest rooms.

3. Attraction: Between 1859 and 1900, thousands of craftsmen built and beautified the 150-room Bahia Palace. From painted ceilings to polished floors, materials were sourced from across Morocco. Today, a portion is open to visitors, who can admire the multicolored ‘zellig’ patterns in its fine courtyards, and explore the harem which once housed four wives and 24 concubines.

4. Building: It’s not the most elaborate piece of architecture but the Koutoubia Mosque is Marrakech’s most iconic. Completed in the late 12th century, construction of this archetypal Islamic building was restarted halfway through to better align it with Mecca. Crowned with copper orbs, the monument’s 250ft tall minaret dominates the skyline.

5. Shop: Within the Medina walls, Marrakech’s Berber souks (markets) are Morocco’s most extensive. In the maze of alleyways, as one souk spills into another, each section boasts a specialism, whether it’s slippers, lanterns or hand-woven rugs. Forget trying to navigate — it’s better just to dive in and drift.

6. Restaurant: Venture into the heart of the old city, step inside the elaborate 16th-century building of Ksar Es Saoussan and enter a bygone era. Wash your hands in the silver urn and take a seat in one of the traditional salons set around the courtyard. Stimulate your tastebuds with an aperitif as you peruse the set menus, then taste your way through four or five courses of Moroccan salads, pastilla, tagines and pastries. essaoussane.com

7. Cafe: Find sanctuary in the Maison de la Photographie’s rooftop cafe. Marvel at photos of old Marrakech as you climb the stairs before relaxing on the shaded terrace with fresh coffee, local pastries or a light lunch. It’s easy to let the afternoon slip away as you lose yourself in the mesmerizing view, with the city sprawling beneath you, palm trees and minarets sprouting between the buildings and the Atlas foothills on the horizon. maisondelaphotographie.ma

8. Experience: No trip to Marrakech is complete without visiting Djemaa el-Fna, the centuries-old square that attracts street performers and peddlers from across North Africa. By mid-morning, crowds amass around snake charmers and story tellers while acrobats flitter past. At nightfall, hoards of chefs arrive with barbecues and bubbling pots. Once you’ve had your fill of exploring, find a seat in a terrace cafe, order some mint tea and take in the view.

PUBLISHED IN THE SUMMER 2014 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork

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